New Exhibition Dedicated to the Works of Women Artists at the Chrysler Museum

This spring, as the Commonwealth of Virginia celebrates the role of women in the arts through the statewide initiative, MINDS WIDE OPEN, the Chrysler Museum does the same with Women of the Chrysler: A 400-Year Celebration of the Arts, an extraordinary new exhibition dedicated to the works of women artists – all of them drawn from our permanent collection. The exhibition traces the course of women’s ever-expanding contributions to the arts in Europe, America, and eventually the world through four chronological sections and three centerpiece installations, which are on view from March 24 to July 18.

Ilse Bing (German/American, 1899–1998), New York, the Elevated, and Me, 1936. Gelatin-silver print. Museum purchase, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., Photography Fund. ©Ilse Bing Estate, Courtesy: Edwynn Houk Gallery

This expansive show fills both the Large and Small Changing Galleries with more than 150 works by women painters, sculptors, photographers, silversmiths, glass artists, and printmakers—from Harriet Cany Peale, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz, and Dorothea Lange, to Diane Arbus, Louise Nevelson, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Cappy Thompson.

The exhibition starts with a section of Pathfinders and Pioneers, a group of largely unsung women working in several different media. Among the artists represented here are the seventeenth-century Parisian painter Claudine Stella; Hester Bateman, one of England’s first women silversmiths; Anna Atkins, the first woman photographer; and the intrepid Harriet Hosmer, who blazed the trail for women sculptors in mid-nineteenth-century Rome.

A Feminine Mystique covers the years between 1850 and 1910, the crucial decades at the dawn of the twentieth century, when women first emerged in force as artistic professionals. It was during this time that ladies began, at last, to take their place alongside their male counterparts in both the teaching academies and exhibition halls of Europe and America. This was the era of painters Mary Cassatt, Helen Turner, and Susan Watkins (whose collection of work at the Chrysler constitutes a case study in itself). Sculptors Bessie Potter Vonnoh and Janet Scudder, photographer Gertrude Kasebier, and glass designer Clara Driscoll and her fellow “Tiffany Girls” shine through their art as well. As the Chrysler’s works by these artists reveal, the subjects that interested them most were familial and domestic in nature—focusing most on women, children, and the home—and their stylistic approach was traditionally feminine and genteel.

In Embracing the Modern, encompassing 1910 thorough 1960, the subjects and styles decidedly begin to change. In these decades following World War I and with the triumph of Women’s Suffrage in America in 1920, women swelled the ranks of the artistic elite on both sides of the Atlantic. They also began to embrace the full range of modernist themes and styles. Subjects formerly considered the province of men—themes of social and political protest, for example—were now eagerly taken up by women and were interpreted through their own eyes.

At the same time, women such as Paula Modersohn Becker, Blanche Lazzell, Ilse Bing, and Lin Emery moved beyond the convention and mannerly refinement of the late nineteenth century to join the avant-garde, competing with men at the cutting edge of artistic change, from Cubism and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and beyond.

Today—Here and Now—women of all races and social classes find themselves at the forefront of artistic innovation. Since the mid 1960s especially, women artists have pushed the limits of their chosen media and increasingly investigated the complexities of artistic, ethnic, political, and sexual identity. Women of the Chrysler documents all of this with a rich array of works by modernist women in the age of feminism—Beverly Buchanan, Rineke Dijkstra, Deborah Butterfield, Cindy Sherman, and Karen LaMonte—and demonstrates the near dominance of the female viewpoint in contemporary art today.

Amid the show’s four key sections are two room-sized installations and a Chrysler Museum first. The Women, a photographic series by Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig, provides a curious commentary on femininity and familiarity, personality and mortality. An electronic art installation by Jennifer Steinkamp shows the changing of the seasons—virtually—through the ingenuity of twenty-first-century emerging media. And a large touch screen installed within the gallery space gives guests hands-on access to the Museum’s first exhibition website, There, Hampton Roads’ women share their perceptions via audio commentaries. All who tour the exhibition can participate in an electronic guestbook and blog where they, too, can comment on their experience of the art in Women of the Chrysler.